The Visit

He walked up toward the big double door made of pinewood, one door of which was open to whoever wanted to enter. Joe walked through the open door and stepped into the small, but modern built church and went to the nearby water-font, into which he dipped his fingers. He blessed himself, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” The holy water was cool to the touch and the drop on his forehead rolled down the bridge of Joe’s nose causing him to wipe it away.

All churches, new or old, have a unique smell about them. There is a scent of incense mixed with the aroma of melting beeswax coming from the many votive candles on the candle-stand near the altar, alight with flickering flames that people hope would carry their prayers upward to God in his heaven. Their fragrance mingled with the lavender bouquet that remained from the furniture polish that someone had used to shine the lines of wooden pews. These caretakers also arranged the many flowers that stood in containers on the altar and at the feet of the many saints whose statues looked down upon the prayerful.

There was no need for lights on this day. The sunshine provided all the illumination that was needed, reflecting the many colours of the stained-glass windows that lined each side of the church. There was crimson red, flaming orange, golden yellow, subtle shades of green, various blues, and Lenten purple. But rather than being a confusion of colour it all added to the feeling of comfort that one had when they entered the building. Joe genuflected, feeling the pain of his arthritic knee that had just begun to flare-up again that morning. He tried to ignore its sharpness and moved into the pew that he and his family used every Sunday. On this occasion he chose not to kneel, afraid of aggravating the inflamed knee further, and he trusted God would understand.

Sitting on the wooden pew Joe rested his hands on his lap and closed his eyes and began to relax. He wanted to empty his mind of all the irrelevancies of the day because this was God’s time. Just as you would visit a friend and talk about what was going on in your life, the joys and the setbacks, Joe was visiting his friend; God. He just wanted some quiet time with his dearest friend and though there were others present, with the same idea, Joe “centred” his mind and was able to ignore them. At last, when he was ready, he began to talk to God and ensured that he would stop every now and then, to listen to what his “friend” had to say. 

The Fleadh

Martin continued to be among my best friends and we spent many days and nights in each other’s company throughout our youth. On quite a number of occasions we were joined by both Andy and Des (not their real names), especially on our trips to the cinema, dance halls, and on Sunday afternoon excursions to a popular seaside resort called Omeath. These were the days before night clubs and budget airlines, and even two car families. At this time the pubs were closed in Northern Ireland all day Sunday, though if you really wanted a drink there were certain doors that would be open to a select clientele. In fact almost everything but the churches were closed on a Sunday and we young men never found ourselves on any select list, which left us with a bus ride to Omeath where the pubs were open almost all day Sunday. The only real problem one would encounter was getting through the crowds of people to get a drink at the bar.

Omeath, Co. Louth

Omeath was a typically border seaside resort village. There was a set of “Esso” petrol pumps, a Protestant Church, a Catholic Church, two or three souvenir shops, two or three small grocers’ shops, a butcher shop and over a dozen pubs and hotels. For six days of any week the population of the village was around two hundred citizens. But on a Sunday this population would expand to two or three thousand thirsty souls brought to the place by buses from every major town in the southern half of Northern Ireland. For those northerners who felt they had a reputation to maintain and didn’t want to be associated with visiting Omeath on a Sunday there was always the day trip to Warrenpoint, where no pubs were open. But, from the stone covered beach at Warrenpoint a fleet of small “Red Flag” boats ferried passengers the short distance across Carlingford Lough to enjoy the pleasure palaces of Omeath. There are none who experienced this place on a Sunday who would not agree that it was an experience not to be missed.

It was probably in Omeath in the late 1960s that we, as a group of young men, came to appreciate traditional Irish folk music listening to the various songs and music played by the patrons in the busy bars. Your a feet could not stop tapping to the jigs and reels played by violin, bodhran, guitar, banjo and spoons. You would find it almost impossible to merrily sing along with the well-oiled patrons who eagerly chanted their songs, trying to emulate the great Irish tenors of the past. But, it was also in Omeath that we first encountered a “Fleadh Ceoil” (pronounced “Flah-Key-Oal”), or traditional Irish folk festival. We enjoyed the music and the Craic so much that we decided that we, as a group, would go Clones town to participate in the “Ulster Fleadh”, a major local festival. So when the time came we all set off for Clones, six young men each with a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, and a two-man tent that we intended would shelter all of us.

Fleadh

In the market-town of Clones bunting of all colours adorned the streets, strung from every available place to buildings and lampposts. A large field had been set aside for those wishing to camp the whole festival week-end, and the best part was that there was no cost. We pitched our two-man tent, packed away our sleeping bags and set off for the town to enjoy the excitement and music that we had been looking forward to so much. On every street corner there was some form of entertainment and every pub was filled with the sound of song and laughter. The strains of various songs filled the air and were accompanied by all sorts of musical instruments. In the town square there was a lorry trailer and upon this organised concerts and dancing exhibitions took place. All over town there were sessions; ordinary people of all ages and from all walks of life playing their instruments or singing songs on their own or in groups. It was a memory I will never forget.

The music and entertainment went on until dark and we strolled back to the campsite hungry, hoarse, full of good cheer and exhausted. Martin took charge and lit a small camp-fire after sending Andy and I to gather whatever dry wood we could find in the nearby trees, even as the night grew darker and clouds gathered in the moonless sky. Meanwhile, Des and Tommy managed to locate two tins of “Heinz Baked Beans” that could be heated for supper. Life was much simpler then. The difficulty came when we discovered that all we had was a blunt butter knife to attempt opening the tins. All six of us sat around the camp fire in an effort to keep warm in the growing chill of the night. It was Eddie who came up with the bright idea that the cans could be placed into the fire unopened and that the blunt knife would break through the tin easier when it was heated. So we waited and waited as our hunger increased. It was Tommy who first noticed the cans bulging and declared “They’re almost done.” The words had hardly left Tommy’s lips when there was an almighty explosion and into the darkness the two tins of baked beans burst open, showering their contents skyward like an orange rain storm. At the same time burning sticks of all shapes and sizes were flung skyward causing a burst of sparks like a million little red stars glowing in the darkness. Of course what goes up must eventually come down, and down it came with a vengeance. Hot beans and tomato sauce covered us all, hair, clothes, tent, everything. We had tried to move quickly out of the way to avoid the burning sticks, sparks and beans but we were too slow. One large firebrand landed on the tent, set it alight and despite our best efforts it was destroyed as was much of our bedding and clothes. It was a big loss that night for twenty minutes later it began to rain and we made our way back into town. Drenched, cold and still hungry all six of us squeezed into the narrow front door area of a local bank, covered ourselves with what was left of one sleeping bag and tried to get some sleep.